ASSOCIATES (2005, March, v. 11, no. 3) -

*My View From The Back Room*


Carol Borzyskowski
Library Associate II
Winona, MN 55987

*It's the SERVICE*

I don’t know how many of you are back with us here at ASSOCIATES, but we sure are glad to have you! It seems the server ate the subscriber list, and Wendee (after picking herself up off the floor after a dead faint…no doubt!) got busy and started collecting names and e-mail addresses again. WHAT A JOB! I bet you think I am going to write a column about the joys of computers or servers or platforms—AGAIN!!--but, I am not. We still have so many odd things going on with our Horizon system, that I don’t even blink at the malfunctions and awkward non-intuitive ways that things "have to be!"

I am going to write about an issue that came up on the library support-staff listserv (LIBSUP-L). This is a great listserv by the way, real people talking about real things, and helping each other out--if you don’t belong to it, consider joining. To subscribe via the World Wide Web, visit, or via email send a message with subject or body 'help' to

The issue brought up was Circulation desk staff answering reference questions, instead of sending the patrons on to the reference desk. The new reference staff members were not getting trained fast enough, because people at the Circ desk fielded the questions. It was also again library policy for Circ people NOT to answer Reference questions, but many of the Circ desk people had been at the library for years and/or knew the patron personally and felt they could help.

There were lots of suggestions and pros and cons on both sides of the issue. Some people thought it was a management issue and the Circ people should be reprimanded strongly by the director; some people thought the Reference people should be at or next to the Circ desk, so they could be handy, visible, and accessible; some people (and I am one of them) thought that as long as the patron is being served, and not sent wandering off to some distant station, and the Circ person really did know the answer, what was the problem?

One of the problems goes back to the "us versus them," or "support staff versus professionals." Yes, this is still an issue, sigh. It don’t matter if you have 20 years of experience, and really do know where the dog books are, you are not trained, and can’t possibly conduct a real Reference Interview.

Another problem really is location of the staff. Patrons come into the library, see someone seated at a desk, and think since you are working at a library, you must be a LIBRARIAN and know the answer. Plus, they don’t want to go to another station and ask the same question. In fact, most patrons would love to just have their materials handed to them through a drive thru window.

There were some great responses, such as train the Circ staff in basic Reference help: this way the more that your library staff knew and could do, the better off your library was going to be perceived by the patrons and everybody wins. Another was to have a Circ person and a Reference person work side by side and help each other out when needed. My personal favorite was simple: If the Circ person could handle the question in less than one minute, let them answer it. This would include things like where is the court house? Do you have this book on the shelf? Or its variation--is this book available?

A huge issue seems to be knowing WHEN to send the question on to the Reference people. I tend to think that is common sense, but apparently not. It really had some people worried. So, I am back to the ONE MINUTE or less idea. We have all heard the one about the patron wanting a book on "Wales" and getting one on "whales," right?

To sum up my position I need to explain the set up in our library. Back in 1987 we added a new entrance to make the building handicapped accessible. Before that the Circ desk was upstairs on the main floor and the Reference people were off to the side but close to the entrance. Now, the entrance is downstairs and the only desk (and first desk everyone sees and walks by) is the Circ desk. All patrons have to walk by us to go up to the main floor of the library. SO, who do YOU think they are going to ask questions of? And how happy do you think they are if it is a simple one you could answer but don’t because you are not a Reference person and you must send them upstairs to find out where the court house is located?

We are also incredibly busy, so I love the one minute rule.

"Where are the books on aquariums?"
"I can get you to the general area, but for specific help, please check with the Reference people on the 2nd floor…"
"Do you have 'Dust on the Trail' available?"
"I’ll check…yes we have a copy available. It is one floor up and to your right, filed alphabetically by the author’s last name: PAYNE. If you need help locating the book, please go to the Reference desk on the second floor."
"Do you have tax forms?"

This article and the opinions expressed are strictly my own. I know the Reference people want all questions sent up to them. They also want any requests/reserves sent up to them, and I usually do that. BUT, if it is slow, and the patron is standing right there, and because I know 85% of all our requests are placed on-line by patrons, I believe I am capable of doing the same thing. Well, that is if the patron really, really does know the title and author. If they have any doubts or I can’t find the item in ONE MINUTE, I smile sweetly and say, “You need to go up to the Reference desk on the 2nd floor. Those are the people who are trained to help you.” Blink blink (insert cheeky grin here!)

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